The Gorgon Stare

There's a line in a Matthew Power's GQ article "Confessions of a Drone Warrior" that perfectly captures the disquieting, if slightly irrational, sense that drones are harbingers of a nightmare, dystopian future.

Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

I read this article with equal parts fascination and horror, as I did Mark Bowden's article "The Killing Machines" in the Atlantic a couple months back. Bowden is definitely the more pro-drone of the two, making the case that, even though drone strikes do result in some collateral damage, ground operations often cause many more civilian casualties. He gives the example of the Delta Force raid in Mogadishu, which he wrote about in Black Hawk Down.

The objective, which was achieved, was to swoop in and arrest Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale, two top lieutenants of the outlaw clan leader Mohammed Farrah Aidid...We were not officially at war with Somalia, but the ensuing firefight left 18 Americans dead and killed an estimated 500 to 1,000 Somalis—a number comparable to the total civilian deaths from all drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 through the first half of 2013, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists’ estimates.

It's a statistic that puts the death toll of drone strikes in startling perspective. Bowden also counters the notion that drones distance soldiers from the realities and consequences of war, quoting a Predator pilot who used to fly B-1 bombers:

"There is a very visceral connection to operations on the ground," Dan says. "When you see combat, when you hear the guy you are supporting who is under fire, you hear the stress in his voice, you hear the emotions being passed over the radio, you see the tracers and rounds being fired, and when you are called upon to either fire a missile or drop a bomb, you witness the effects of that firepower." He witnesses it in a far more immediate way than in the past, and he disdains the notion that he and his fellow drone pilots are like video gamers, detached from the reality of their actions. If anything, they are far more attached.

In some ways, I came away from these articles more disturbed by the surveillance possibilities of drones than I am by their potential as vehicles for assassination. Bowden mentions something known as the Gorgon Stare: a system of cameras and artificial intelligence for analyzing camera footage (named for the mythical beast that can turn its victims to stone).

Instead of one soda-straw-size view of the world with the camera, we put essentially 10 cameras ganged together, and it gives you a very wide area of view of about four kilometers by four kilometers—about the size of the city of Fairfax, [Virginia]—that you can watch continuously. Not as much fidelity in terms of what the camera can see, but I can see movement of cars and people—those sorts of things. Now, instead of staring at a small space, which may be, like, a villa or compound, I can look at a whole city continuously for as long as I am flying that particular system.

In the more recent GQ article, Matthew Power details how the burden of this surveillance, and the fatal power that comes along with it, can weigh on the person behind the camera. The article is a profile of one such drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, who describes his experience in the use of drones as an almost god-like witness to the mass of humanity he had under surveillance.

He watched the targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too. He once watched a man walk out into a field and take a crap, which glowed white in infrared.

In the end, it's not so much the violence that Bryant finds traumatizing, but the simultaneous sense of powerlessness (because he wasn't the one choosing his targets) and the way the technology, rather than distancing him, gave him an intimate, invasive view of his victims' final moments on earth, watching the heat of their bodies dissipating through infrared.

The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.

Even if drones cause less collateral damage, I can't help but fear the greater psychological damage, both to our enemies and to ourselves. Both articles are well worth reading.